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Hotter and hungrier: The Middle East in a 1.5C warmer world

Hotter, thirstier, hungry: The Middle East in a 1.5C warmer world
26 February, 2024
A peek into what the future holds for three of the Middle East's most vulnerable countries, in a world where global temperatures increase by 1.5C and more.

Scientists from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have long warned that climate change will have devastating and irreversible impacts on the Middle East.

Climate change, also known as global warming, is fuelled by the release of powerful “greenhouse” gases that warm up our atmosphere, massively disrupting the environment in which we live.

No one can predict exactly what impacts climate change will have over time in a given location, but the IPCC’s six assessment reports paint the most likely picture of what’s to come.

According to these projections by the world’s top climate scientists, climate change is set to make swathes of the Middle East much drier and hotter by the turn of the century, jeopardising agriculture and food security in the region.

As the weather becomes more erratic, countries in the Middle East are also expected to face more natural disasters, including both severe droughts and floods.

But the worst impacts may materialise even sooner – because the world is warming up faster than scientists previously thought.

According to a study from November 2023, we are now firmly on track to breach the symbolic “1.5C threshold” within this decade - corresponding to an average increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius on current global temperatures.

Middle East: On the frontline of climate change

1.5 degrees of global warming is the red line that the international community aimed never to cross under the Paris Agreement, which has guided international efforts to combat climate change since 2015.

Scientists say this is the maximum amount of warming the planet can endure if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change – some of which are set to materialise in the Middle East first.

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As if to confirm this trend, the month of January 2024 was the hottest January ever measured, making it the eighth month in a row where temperatures exceeded previous records for the corresponding time in the year.

As we edge increasingly close to the 1.5 limit, here’s a sneak peek of the changes already taking place in three of the Middle East region’s most climate-affected countries – and what the future holds for them as the planet keeps warming.

Jordan: Running out of water

Soaring temperatures don’t bode well for Jordan, which is among the most water-stressed countries on Earth. The amount of renewable water available to Jordanians (which includes average yearly precipitations and the water flowing in rivers), is already five times below what the UN considers the “absolute threshold of water scarcity” – 500 cubic meters per capita per year.

Since “renewable” resources are scarce, Jordan has been dipping dangerously fast into “non-renewable” water - deep underground aquifers that will only recharge over the course of millennia.

But this strategy is not without consequences. Growing demand for water over the past decades has already led to the near-total death of Azraq, an oasis in the country’s northeast that dried up in the late 1990s due to massive pumping into the aquifers that used to feed it.

The capital, Amman, has since switched to the southern Disi aquifer for its drinking water. But Disi is not rechargeable either, and groundwater levels have already dropped around 1 meter per year over the past 25 years. At this rate, scientists estimate that most of the country’s aquifers will dry up by 2040.

The King Talal Dam, which holds treated wastewater from Amman, is one of Jordan’s key sources of irrigation water [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

Now, global warming further threatens this limited water supply according to Neda A Zawahri, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Cleveland State University whose work focuses on adaptation to climate change.

“Some studies estimate that climate change's impact on the agricultural sector of Jordan can lead to a 6.8 percent decline in its GDP,” Zawahri told The New Arab. “Jordan's transboundary water supplies might decrease even further as upstream neighbours increase their use of shared water resources. And Jordan's aquifers, already over-extracted to meet the ever-increasing demand for water, might be endangered due to droughts and decreasing precipitation that comprise their recharge.”

Jordanian authorities have long been trying to tackle this water crisis, mostly through efforts to save water. Millions have been invested to fix the country’s piped networks, which leak massively and are often directly tapped into by communities and individuals trying to get free access to water.

Another key step was the construction of the Samra wastewater treatment plant, which treats Amman’s wastewater before releasing it into King Talal Dam, one of Jordan’s main reserves of irrigation water for agriculture.

In parallel, local authorities and a flurry of private actors – including local and international NGOs – have heavily promoted “water-wise” forms of agriculture in recent years. This has brought the share of water resources consumed by farms from over 70% in 2000 to about 45% in 2017.

In some areas, Jordanian farmers have invested in drip-irrigation systems to save water [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

But all these efforts still come short of fixing Jordan’s water deficit, particularly since climate change is expected to impact precipitation levels.

“[Climate change] is likely to decrease precipitations anywhere from 4 to 15 percent and is also expected to decrease the country's per capita water availability by 30 percent by 2040,” Zawahri added. Less rainfall will mean less water in rivers, greater reliance on irrigation for agriculture, and a slower recharge rate for groundwater aquifers – the perfect storm to bring Jordan’s water crisis over the brink.

The main solution in Amman’s mind is desalination. For years now, Jordanian authorities have been trying to fund a large desalination plant on the Red Sea to inject 300 million cubic meters of additional freshwater into the system per year.

“The construction of this desalination plant will be critical to help Jordan build resilience to the impacts of climate change and to meet its water security needs,” Zawahri added. But it’s far from a perfect solution, and the challenges are huge: the water will have to be pumped over around 300 kilometres to reach the city, built around 1,000 meters above sea level. Desalination is also costly and very energy-intensive, and the process releases extremely salty brine which can destroy local ecosystems if dumped directly into the sea.

Iraq: Towards unbearable heat

Like in Jordan, water stress is a major issue in Iraq, but more worrisome yet are the rising temperatures in summer, which could make parts of the country unlivable altogether.

“Iraq is already experiencing extreme temperatures, which are only expected to worsen with time,” Zeinab Shuker, an assistant professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University in Texas who studies the impact of climate change on oil-dependent countries, told The New Arab.

In the summer of 2023, temperatures reached highs of 49 degrees Celsius several days in a row across different regions of Iraq. The mercury even hit 51 degrees in the southern city of Basra, which ranked several times among the world’s hottest cities. And this crisis is only about to get worse. “Recent research predicts that days with temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) will increase from 14 days to 40 days in the next two decades,” Shuker added.

Iraq’s summer heat peaks already have crippling effects on the economy, causing businesses and public institutions to close for several days each year. And these spells of heat can be deadly. Heat already kills 1091 Iraqis on average every year.

According to a 2023 study in the British medical journal The Lancet, 123 people out of every 100,000 in the Middle East and North Africa region could die of heat-related issues by 2081 if global warming continues on the same track.

Residents of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, use bedsheets to cast shadows on their windows and fend off the 50 degrees summer heat [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

“Research finds that if temperatures rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, which is expected [to happen], many regions, especially in the Middle East, will experience wet-bulb temperatures too hot for the human body to function,” Shuker said.

The wet-bulb temperature index is a measure of heat that also takes into account humidity, wind speed and the intensity of sunlight. This index reflects more accurately the “danger” that heat poses to the human body, which struggles to cool itself when the air is very humid.  

A 31-degree Celsius wet-bulb temperature is considered deadly. But in Iraq, wet-bulb temperatures around 28 degrees have already been recorded several times in the summer of 2023, prompting scientists to worry that the region may become unlivable even faster than expected.

With uninterrupted access to air conditioning, short spells of extreme heat may be bearable. But millions of people in Iraq live with limited access to electricity and decreasing access to water. In these conditions, the most vulnerable are essentially left “at the mercy of the weather,” Shuker highlighted.

Many businesses and houses rely on the “Mubarida,” a water-based air cooler that consumes less energy than classical air-conditioning systems [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

“During the peak of summer heat, many Iraqis can go home to get a break from extreme heat, but many day workers won't have that luxury,” she added. “Many are forced to work under extreme conditions. Many do not have access to stable employment, so they will work even if it undermines their health. There are no laws or protections in place for these workers.”

For Shuker, there are many measures the government could take to help Iraqis adapt to extremely hot summers, including investing in health infrastructure, addressing shortages of electricity and water, and implementing effective labour laws to protect vulnerable communities. “It is often the poorest sections of the population that end up at the hospital, and some will even lose their lives because of extreme heat,” she regretted.

In the meantime, Iraqis are trying to cope as well as they can – but with uneven means. While the wealthiest can invest in air-conditioning and secure a stable supply of electricity through pricy connections to generators, poorer households rely on timeless, low-technology solutions, like casting curtains over the façade of their homes and sleeping on their rooftop to catch the summer breeze.

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Egypt: A withering breadbasket

In other parts of the Middle East region, the most pressing impact of climate change is rising sea levels that threaten to swallow coastal cities and valuable agricultural land: an estimated 15 percent of Egypt’s most fertile farmland has already been damaged by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a trend that is expected to accelerate in coming years.

The damage is most perceptible in the Nile Delta, which accounts for over 50% of Egypt’s farmable lands and produces much of its food. Farmland in the Delta has been shrinking for decades due to multiple factors, including sea level rise and urban expansion. Demographic growth only adds to the challenge:  the Egyptian population has increased from 71 million people in 2000 to 110 million by 2021, making it the most populous country in the Middle East.

As in many other places around the world, the issues Egypt faces aren’t linked only to climate change, but to the way it interacts with pre-existing issues. Hence, the construction of the High Aswan dam by the Egyptian state in the 1960s aimed to regulate the flow of water to the Nile and avert seasonal flooding, allowing agriculture to be practised all year long on the banks of the Nile.

But the loss of annual floods also deprived farms downstream of their yearly supply of silt, a very fertile substance that used to be carried down by the river. This forced farmers in the Nile Delta to rely on chemical fertilisers for the first time in history and reduced the accumulation of sediments in coastal areas, which proves problematic today as the sea rises.

Sea level rise threatens to engulf parts of Alexandria, including its iconic Qaitbay citadel [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

“As a result [of the dam’s construction], the Nile Delta became "stagnant", while on the other side, sea water is rising due to the impact of climate change, which leads to saltwater intrusion,” Mohamed Tawfik, an environmental researcher and author of a study on evolving water use in the Nile Delta, told The New Arab.

The IPCC projects that global sea levels could rise by 0.28 to 0.98 meters by 2100, which would drown vast stretches of the Egyptian coasts within the next decades, including the eastern half of Alexandria, a city home to more than 5 million people.

In parallel, “the extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides in the Delta as well as untreated water led to the increase of water and soil salinity in the Delta,” Tawfik added. This is already taking a toll on farmers and fishermen in the Delta, as increasing salinity affects not only the kind of crops that can be grown there but also local species of fish.

To fight the projected loss of coastal areas due to sea level rise, Egyptian authorities have spent millions of dollars to build seawalls off the coast of key cities. They’ve also promised to tackle water pollution in a bid to limit salinisation and support the fishing industry.

Sea walls off the coast of Alexandria protect the fishing harbour and try to fend off the threat of rising sea levels [photo credit: Lyse Mauvais]

But many farmers and fishermen don’t trust these mega-projects, nor their impact. "The uncertainty that comes with the new governmental projects coupled with the impact of climate change perplexes the everyday livelihoods [of fishermen in the Delta],” said Yasmine Ahmed Hafez, a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) whose work focuses on the wetlands of the Nile Basin. “Many fishermen depend on the day's catch; their lives are (…) highly vulnerable to these changes.”  

Day by day, they’re trying to cope with a changing environment by their own means – sometimes in unexpected ways, such as hunting migratory birds to make up for dwindling fish stocks, according to Hafez.

Others must abandon fishing and farming altogether and move to the city to look for an income. In Egypt, as in Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere on the frontline of climate change, the poorest communities are the most vulnerable ones - and they will have to come up with creative strategies to adapt.

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais